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Gymnast Emma Sibson's Battle with Lupus

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By Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer    
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Every year, the NCAA Regionals is an opportunity for collegiate women's gymnastics team to compete and try to advance to the national championships. This is also the time for collegiate gymnasts, who have been training day-in and day-out for their entire lives, to make a statement on each event, in order to fight for a chance to compete at nationals.

But for senior Emma Sibson, during the 2017 NCAA Regionals, her main focus was not about earning the highest score. She was simply happy to have one final opportunity to compete in gymnastics as a Nittany Lion.

Sibson was diagnosed with lupus on January 9, 2017, just two days after the Penn State's women's gymnastics team's first competition of the season, a victory in a quad meet against Bowling Green, BYU and Temple. It was the first appearance for Sibson since February 6, 2016, during her junior season. In her return, Sibson competed on vault and earned a score of 9.725. 

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when a person's immune system attacks his or her own tissues, organs, joints or skin. The autoantibodies that attack and destroy the healthy tissue can cause inflammation, pain and damage in various parts of the body. The most common signs of lupus include: fatigue and fever, joint pain and stiffness, butterfly-shaped rash on the face, chest pain, and shortness of breath. 

During her junior year (2015-16), the Allen, Texas native experienced rashes and fatigue and some of her hair started to fall out. Doctors tested her thyroid and they put her on thyroid medication, but that wasn't the problem. 

"In March of junior year, I started having Raynaud's disease, [disorder where some areas of the body, like hands or feet, turn white and go numb, in response to cold temperatures or stress], hives, rashes, severe fatigue, and mouth and tongue ulcers," Sibson said. 

In March 2016, Sibson's mother, who is a nurse, was the first person that suggested lupus after she received a picture of a butterfly-shaped rash on her daughter's face. 

This past fall, she was tested for food allergies and her results came back positive for most of the foods she ate in her everyday diet. She also began to get fevers and her joints started to ache. 

"Sometimes, I felt I could not walk up a flight of stairs," Sibson said.

Her mother came to the conclusion in December 2016 that Sibson needed to be checked for autoimmune disorders and the results came back positive for lupus. 

"My first reaction was that at least I now know exactly what is wrong with me," Sibson said. "I went to see a rheumatologist in January who confirmed the diagnosis. He started me on medications to treat the flares that I had been having for quite some time." 

Sibson was relieved to have confirmation of her condition. Her initial concern was not about getting better though; she was worried about not being able to compete in gymnastics in her final season.

 Her doctor gave her the go-ahead to continue practicing gymnastics as long as she felt okay. The coaches also made sure she was well rested in between events. Sibson returned to the line-up on February 4 against Michigan State to compete on vault and she finished in second with a season-best score of 9.850.

However, a week later, during the Ohio State meet, Sibson started to feel severe chest pain after the floor routine and knew there was more to her condition.

"I saw the cardiologist who diagnosed pericarditis [a swelling and irritation of the thin sac-like membrane surrounding the heart], associated with my lupus," Sibson said. "They put me on more medicine and said I could not do anything until I had a stress test. After the test, I was told I could not do anything that elevated my heart rate."

It appeared Sibson was out for the rest of the season. She was not able to compete in five meets, including the senior meet against Pittsburgh, the B1G Five Qualifier and the Big Ten Championships.  

"I wasn't healthy enough to compete, but I think you can never have enough people on the sidelines, cheering you on or helping you out," Sibson said. "I was very grateful that I was healthy enough to still travel, participate and be able to cheer on the girls."

This was her senior season, though. She didn't want her gymnastics career to end. She wanted to have a chance to demonstrate her gymnastics skills one final time. 

"They didn't think I would be able to return, but surprisingly, I competed in vault [at the NCAA Regionals]," Sibson said. "It was very exciting [to find out I was able to compete]. I called the cardiologist on my own. I told him I had been feeling better, no chest pain. I just asked, 'Can I please just compete? This meet? Just on vault?', and he said I could with the stipulation that I was monitored closely and promised that I would stop if I had any chest pain. I had just a few practices to get back into shape enough to vault, but that was enough for me."

After consulting with coaches Kera Molinaro and Josh Nilson, at the NCAA Gainesville Regional on April 1, Sibson tied for 11th on vault with a 9.825 in front of 5,214 fans.

"She thought that she was going to be done with the sport, and to have a second chance, which was amazing for her diagnosis, she was really excited about the opportunity," Molinaro said.  

Sibson was extremely grateful for the opportunity, but she officially knew that it would be her last competitive meet.

"The day after arriving back from regionals, I was in the emergency room with severe chest pain, but it was different than the one with my heart," Sibson said. "I now have pleurisy (inflammation of the tissues that line the lungs and chest cavity), which is also associated with lupus, and was started on steroids. Three days later, I had a kidney biopsy which shows that lupus has caused inflammation in my kidneys, so I was started on a medicine that will suppress my immune system." 

The senior is recovering and feeling better after getting her recent medications. She is focusing on the last couple of weeks of school, trying to catch up on work and hoping there are no setbacks for graduation.

"Personally, I do not think you ever truly adapt to having lupus," Sibson said. "It is something you will fight your entire life. Some days, you might even forget you have lupus, and some days will be the harder days when you might spend up to a week in the hospital or adding another medication to your already numerous prescription pills in one day. I think that's the scariest thing. You never know what the next day has in store for you when living with lupus. I think that is something you will never truly adapt to." 

Ever since starting gymnastics when she was four years old, Sibson has practiced with Olympians like Nastia Liukin, competed on a collegiate team, earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice, captured numerous event titles, and much more.

"I've had so many [memories]," Sibson said. "I think just having the opportunity to compete for a collegiate team and Penn State is the best. It's an amazing school, and although it's so big, it's like one big family. In general, my time here has been an amazing experience."

 After graduation, her main goal is to regulate medications and get better. She is also excited to be getting a puppy, and one day, she hopes to become a collegiate gymnastics coach. Nonetheless, she wants everyone to understand and spread awareness about lupus. 

"What I want people to know from my story is that lupus is a real disease and can be debilitating during a flare," Sibson said. "I wish that everyone who has symptoms seeks out the care they need. Do not let someone dismiss your symptoms. To those who have family, friends, teammates or co-workers with lupus, try to be supportive and understanding.  Suggesting they would make up these symptoms to get out of work, school or normal life is plain ridiculous. Remember they can be "healthy" and then without much warning be in a flare causing a wide variety of symptoms. For those with Lupus, especially young people, get up and get going every day. Sometimes, it is really hard, I know, but [it's possible]."

May is Lupus Awareness Month, and though treatment for the symptoms have improved, there is no known cure for lupus.

To learn more about lupus or to donate to help find a cure, visit the website for the Lupus Foundation of America.

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